The Great Stagnation in Westeros

I’ve decided to write a bit about some of the political and economic questions raised in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, which I love and have just finished re-reading. You may be wondering why such a topic would be appropriate for Bleeding Heart Libertarians, but you shouldn’t. If you read this blog regularly, you love politics, you love economics and you very likely love sci-fi/fantasy genre stuff. So objectors: stuff it.

Don’t worry. I’ll be careful to post spoiler tags [If you want to talk about spoilery stuff in the comments, PLEASE USE SPOILER TAGS]. This post involves no spoilers, so don’t worry (though there is a teensy risk of a spoiler tied to the maesters’ hostility to magic). Also, a terminological note: Westeros is one continent on what some call Planetos (the world has no official name) but I call it Os.

The question for this post is why Westeros (and Os more generally) seems stuck in a long-term technological stagnation. Westeros’s recorded history probably dates back to the Age of Heroes, which began after the signing of the Pact between the First Men and the Children of the Forest, and at least from the building of the Wall, 8000 years prior to the start of the books. Our recorded history only extends back around 6000 years, so Os-Civilization has at least two thousand years on us. It appears that in all that time, no civilization has reached a level of technological sophistication that heralds the beginning of modernity (though we do not know the level of technological sophistication in the Valyrian Freehold, I doubt they were on the cusp of modern industry). Westeros (and Essos) are stuck in a great stagnation of an awful sort. They can’t seem to stumble on key innovations required to reach our rate of economic development.

My theory is that the presence of magic is the cause of Os’s (but let’s focus on Westeros) great stagnation. Before I explain why, I’d like to forestall an alternative theory.


The alternative theory is that Os’s unpredictable and extremely long seasonal cycles make the accumulation of capital, human and physical, much more difficult. As any readers know, seasons can last for many years, and seem to be affected by magic. The books begin at the end of a long summer, progress through autumn, and are gearing up for winter in The Winds of Winter (to be released). There is some worry among a few characters that this winter will be long, not just because of seasonal predictions but because the return of the White Walkers may signal another Long Night. (FWIW, I predict the winter will be short, determined largely by the defeat of the Whitewalkers.)

The argument from unpredictable seasons and long winters goes a bit like this: (1) Given unpredictable seasons, it is hard for people to rationally plan how much harvest to store away, so many more people starve on a regular basis than in our world, and there is much more violent conflict during winters over remaining food, leading to more death. With fewer humans and less reliable survival, any built up capital will be almost entirely eaten away during the winter. (2) You might think humans would wise-up after a few thousand years, but perhaps due to ordinary human genetic short-sightedness, they just can’t seem to coordinate successfully enough to get out of a Malthusian trap. After all, it took us thousands of years. Maybe they haven’t stumbled on it yet.

But I don’t think this argument works for three reasons: (i) There are plenty of areas that don’t suffer horribly during winter. First, there’s the Summer Isles, the Basilisk Isles, and Sothoryos (we know next to nothing about it, save that it is covered in jungle). Closer to home we have Dorne, along with the Essos cities at a similar latitude (Lys, Volantis, Meereen) and those south of it (Astapor, Qarth, and probably Asshai). Maybe they get super cold, but probably not. So this reasoning won’t apply as forcefully to them. (ii) The people in Westeros aren’t stupid. Heck, Winterfell has hot-springs-fueled heating! So you’d think people could innovate enough to build up slowly over time. (iii) The winters may even impel people to be more innovative. The most advanced societies tend to be colder ones. If Iceland can thrive and flourish, why not the North?

Ok, so then what accounts for Westeros’s Great Stagnation? Magic. Here are three arguments.

(1)  Magic Increases the Opportunity Cost of Micro-level Scientific Inquiry – the presence of magic in Os distracts a great many people from coming to believe in the power prediction and observation. Magic gives many powerful minds people shortcuts around genuine problems, like knowing the future (Mel’s flames), long-distance communication (Glass Candles) and even bringing people back to life (the Last Kiss). So the incentive to engage in boring, rote, micro-level scientific inquiry will have less of an expected payoff compared to other forms of inquiry, like magical training. 

(2)  Magic Increases the (Subjective) Probability that Polytheism is True: arguably science first arose in cultures that had come to the theological belief that God or the gods (usually God) operated the universe according to observable, discernible rules. Perhaps there were miracles, but they were exceedingly rare. “Natural law” thinking helped to produce a scientific culture. But in a world with real magic as opposed to fake magic, people will naturally, and in many cases rationally, attribute magic to various gods engaged in shadowy activities. And since lots of people in all cultures can use magic, they will come to believe in many different gods, which helps explain why every religion in Westeros has at least two gods (unless you count the Many-Faced God, sort of, and he’s not recognized by many). So rational polytheism likely contributes to cultural practices less conducive to science than, say, 17th century Europe. The case for deism is rather weak in Os, and so the clock-maker universe is less intellectually available.

Maester Luwin

(3)  Magic Distracts and Discredits the Proto-Scientific Community: the Maesters, based at the Citadel in Oldtown, are the proto-scientific community in Westeros. They are powerful, influential healers, communicators (via ravenry), lawyers and scholars. However, they are frequently distracted from experimentation by a variety of matters. First, they despise magic, in part because it is so dangerous and unpredictable, and (probably) spend a great deal of energy trying to stop it. It is widely rumored that the Maesters probably helped to kill off the last Targaryen dragons (the last dragon died in 155AC (Aegon’s Conquest), whereas the books begin around 298AC), which are widely regarded as either enabling magic or dramatically strengthening it whenever they are alive. If the maesters are focused on creating a more orderly world, they’re less focused on understanding it. Further, and more importantly, when magic works, it discredits the authority of the maesters. Consider Maester Luwin, who repeatedly ignores good evidence of magic’s efficacy, despite having an overall good character. The natural skeptical attitude of many scientists does not pay off for the maesters as it does in our world. And so their skepticism makes them look petty and unimaginative, even the good maesters.

These three factors lower the likelihood that a robust, ongoing scientific culture will arise, and without it the critical innovations required for technological progress will not happen. Of course, science is not a sufficient condition for modern economic growth, but it is arguably a necessary one.

Importantly, the religions of Os do not seem generally hostile to commercial activity, though they also do not seem to support or celebrate it. Merchants have influence, but they are not highly regarded. With the big exception of the Iron Bank of Braavos and some other lesser financial institutions, most monetary focus is placed on aristocratic households and the revenues they collect. So while there is little to encourage a commercial culture, there is little to stop it either. And in some great cities, especially Qarth, the merchants have great economic and political power, so with adequate scientific advance, the investment necessary to accumulate capital would arguably materialize. So I don’t think the Great Stagnation in Westeros is on the commercial side.

If you’ve ready Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation, you know that one of his prescriptions to get our own economy growing faster is to improve the social standing of scientists. Tyler may not be right about our own culture (though I think he is), but he certainly seems to be right about Westeros: they need a more credible, respectable scientific community to get out of their own great stagnation.

Perhaps for this reason, the best course for the smallfolk is for the dragons to die, as this will considerably constrain the power of magic, if not eliminate it. I know, I know, dragons are awesome, but they’re also the Os equivalent of nuclear weapons, which allowed the Valyrian Freehold to maintain a brutal slave culture for thousands of years. The Targaryens (one of three surviving Valyrian families) rejected slavery, with the rest of Westeros, so perhaps a new dragonocracy wouldn’t be so bad, but the fact that the dragons keep the window of magic open, or at least widen it, they would prove a continual barrier to economic advancement.

UPDATE: Ryan M raises an additional argument in the comments that I had not seen. Basically, one impetus for innovation is to increase military power. But given the magical power derived from dragons (dragons, dragonriders and wildfire, and potentially the ability to create advanced steel), the need for military innovation among the power elites was significantly weakened. Any of these technologies would allow the one who holds the technology to become the dominant power. If you have all of these powers, then you have little incentive to innovate beyond this. You can already extract all the economic rents you wants from your vassals and subjects.

Drogon is cool.

  • How about the reason for stagnation in Westeros is that the book is fiction, so Westeros can develop in what ever manner George R. R. Martin decides is best for his story. Unlike the real world, there is no invisible hand in fiction. The author gets to design the world.

    • Irri

      Except that he drew inspiration from the actual world and its invisible hand, so the invisible hand at least indirectly affected the fictional world. He didn’t just throw a bunch of random words on paper.

      • adrianratnapala

        Yes. Some people like aSoIF because they think it is realistic, and seems to be about geopolitics rather than swords and sorcery. Indeed the story has the feel of history, and the sorcery is done poorly. But I don’t think its all that very realistic. The Lannisters are rich because they own gold mines? Really?

        • Damien S.

          …yes, really. What’s your problem with that?

          • adrianratnapala

            I mean gold mines are no more valuable than any other kind of natural resource. Gold is worse in the sense that if they really do have extraordinarily productive mines, that will just push the price down. I imagine the productive agriculture of larger southern territories would be more profitable, as would trade in Dorne, Kings Landing and Old Town. Even the Starks might have more tax revenue because of the sheer size of their (relatively unproductive) territory.

          • Damien S.

            Sure, a gold mine is basically inflationary and doesn’t add much to total wealth. It still increases the share of wealth *you* can get, as long as people keep valuing gold.

          • Aaron

            Don’t mean to interrupt, but shouldn’t one consider the “goldmines” as part of the story, people of westeros tell each other to comprehend the wealth of this family? The character of Petyr Bealish seem to indicate that the author has, at least, a general idea about economic prosperity (the old king believes wealth to equal treasures, but it clearly it is not, as Bealish explained…)

        • Valar

          Yes, the trope in fantasy is called ‘medieval stasis’ and has been around longer than Tolkien. It’s standard in fantasy for nothing technological to have changed in 1000s of years, but it aggravates some fans of ASOIAF because it reminds them that the story is indeed fantasy no matter how much they try to defend its ‘realism’. (Some fans are pretty insufferable in the ‘this story is so gritty and realistic’ department.)

  • adrianratnapala

    I agree with most of this post, but would like to point out that the 8000 year timeline we are trying to explain is fiction. This means two things (1) it is false even within the fantasy world, and Westerossi scholars know that particular ancient events, when they happened at all, were more recent than is commonly believed. (2) This is of course fantasy, and so like all fantasy authors Martin muffs the timescale, probably deliberately.

  • adrianratnapala

    I agree with most of this post, but would like to point out that #2 is just plain bollocks. At least as far as it assumes that monotheism is more science-friendly than polytheism. I agree that rational evidence for magic or polytheism undermines the folk-atheism that works so well for scientists.

    Ancient in ancient India it was common enough to believe the universe operated according to observable, discernible rules. Rules which bind even the gods. People interested in those rules included outright mechanist atomists, and the more successful Buddhists who’s entire philosophy is about observing facts and working within the underlying rules.

    Much more importantly, we had the similar things in pagan Greece, which produced a very successful proto-scientific community. And perhaps we owe our existing post-renaissance civilisation to later Europeans turning away from their montheistic culture and embracing their pagan past.

  • Sean II

    Why kill the dragons – an important piece of capital in steel production – when you can just kill the offending wizards? Or get the dragons to kill the wizards for stealing their magic, if you’re into the whole poetic justice thing.

    That thought would have occurred to you, Kevin, if you weren’t buried up to your breastplate in speciesism.

    • adrianratnapala

      He’s not speciest. He’s just a luddite.

  • Sarah Skwire

    Kevin, is Adrian right that your point #2 is meant to imply that monotheism is more science friendly than polytheism?

    • adrianratnapala

      And if I am wrong, then I apologise for my rant.

      • Kevin Vallier

        I think it is obvious that monotheism lays the groundwork for the emergence of the scientific point of view, especially austere forms of theism without lesser deities (like saints in syncretistic Catholic cultures), especially Islam, Judaism, high Catholicism and much Protestantism. The move away from “superstitious” belief systems among Western intellectuals was a critical part of creating elite intellectual classes in the West where modern science was born, and theism was seen as at least a step in that direction. Yes, you get the glimmers of science in polytheistic cultures, but the correlation between the invention of science and theism and deism (thinking Newton and Leibniz here) is dramatic.

        • Sarah Skwire

          .The history of science iin South Asia ( and in China ( argue against your monotheism=scientific advance at every turn, as does the long history of monotheistic religious objection to scientific advancement in any number of fields.

          You should also probably be very careful about suggesting that Newton was part of a move away from “superstitious” belief systems. He was deeply invested in exploring alchemy and in attempting to raise demons.

          And as for the elite intellectual classes in the west where modern science was born? Many of them were shedding *religious belief* as rapidly as they could–not exchanging polytheism for monotheism.

          • Kevin Vallier

            I’m not sure this will be helpful, as you and I seem unable to reach anything approaching agreement when it comes to religious matters, but here goes.

            (1) I never said “at every turn” though I know you’re being hyperbolic. But I’m thinking about the creation of science, not the fact that it can be practiced elsewhere. Think about it like Deirdre’s thesis that capitalism develops in cultures with bourgeois dignity but can then spread to other cultures via imitation (though she thinks the “dignity” needs to spread as well). That’s what I think is obvious, that restricted forms of classical theism make the rise of science more probable.

            (2) Yes, Newton was superstitious, but the broader point is that the theistic picture of a regular, rationally sensible universe that was a core part of his worldview helped to ease the adoption of the scientific mindset.

            (3) In the 17th century, we’re not moving away from monotheism, we’re moving away from certain forms forms of Catholicism and Christianity more broadly that emphasized the powers of lesser spiritual forces (the devil, angels, saints, etc.). Many early scientists are shedding theological beliefs that go beyond mere theism, but theism is still the overwhelmingly dominant intellectual model. So we’re moving away from “religious belief” in some senses, but not from theism.

            I suppose you could argue that all the smart people were secret atheists, but that has never seemed terribly plausible to me. I don’t even think Hobbes was an atheist in the modern sense.

          • Troy Camplin

            There does seem to be a natural, long-term evolution from animism to polytheism to monotheism to deism to agnosticism/atheism. But, in the same way, as Nietzsche observed, that atheists tend to continue to act like theists, monotheists tend to retain elements of polytheism (see the Catholic saints structure). There does seem to be a positive correlation between adoption of full monotheism and scientific development (see the Golden Age of Islam and the development of science in India as the many gods become understood as different aspects of one God). There is a lot of evidence for the connection between the rise of full-blown monotheism and science — expressed as deism in Europe around the time of the Enlightenment.

            Under polytheism, you have the gods in conflict, and the world is not necessarily understandable. But with a single creator God, there is a consistent world that can be understood. Understanding the universe is understanding the mind of God. Under polytheism, learning about the world teaches you nothing about the gods; you have to learn about the gods themselves to learn about the gods. And as The Clouds shows, people interpreted an interest in natural philosophy/science as attempting to introduce new gods.

  • Aaron Michelson

    I would argue that the Maesters, as an institution, are the main force preventing progress and innovation. In Westeros, the Maesters are the sole state-sanctioned intellectuals. Anyone who is literate is taught by a Maester, and those who show promise as scientists are quickly snapped up and brought under the control of the citadel. Those who might otherwise be in a position to investigate the world and innovate – namely members of wealthy families who have access to resources and leisure time – have a strong disincentive to undergo investigations on their own. Why bother when you have a Maester on staff? Clearly the presence of the Maesters crowds out learning and innovation from any non-Maesters.

    Importantly, the Maesters are NOT scientists. They are official state-funded “keepers of knowledge”. Their role is to maintain and pass along the already existing body of knowledge, record the histories of their patrons, and perform various services for the powers that be. This is an organization that benefits from the status quo. You could easily imagine the Maesters suppressing a long-distance communications technology that would replace the raven system and thus cut the Maesters out of their powerful position as keepers of coummunication. You can see by the treatment of Qyburn, that they take a dim view of innovation within their ranks.

    • Kevin Vallier

      Thanks for commenting, Aaron! That’s why I described the maesters as a proto-scientific community. We know that they do experiments of various sorts, practice astronomy, collect medical knowledge and techniques, and the like. And they are a state-sanctioned body, but so was the Royal Society in the UK, and they still did some amazing stuff in the 17th century, though I don’t think they had the power to force others not to do science. So they seem capable of becoming scientists in any case.

      • Aaron Michelson

        Sure, but the incentive structure of the Maester organization given their role in society would discourage innovation. In an important sense, discovering NEW knowledge is not really their job. This is very different from the Royal Society, where natural philosophy was their basic purpose.

        • Kevin Vallier

          A fair point. But one wonders why they don’t bother more with it, or at least why they haven’t drifted towards it over many millennia, stumbled on good and useful discoveries, and then morphed into something like the Royal Society. One explanation might be, as I suggest in the post, that scientific inquiry just doesn’t have the payoff it does in our world.

          • Aaron Michelson

            It could be that the Maester mindset is hostile to experimentation. Maester learning, is generally depicted as reading through man old books to find the relevant bits of insight. There is an attitude in the Citadel that all important knowledge has already been collected and written down, and that is the basis of the Maester prestige. This arrogance is the worst environment for genuine innovation.

            The conception of learning as a process and method is not just different from the conception of learning as holding the keys to the official library, it is incompatible with it.

    • adrianratnapala

      I think the Maesters are pretty close to academics in real history. So yes they are a state sanctioned guild, but that is true even of professors today. Except for their irrational anti-magicism I see little evidence of them suppressing knowledge or innovation. Many non-maesters are also scholars (e.g. Tyrion Lannister), and can you imagine what a modern ethics committee would think of the research of Dr. Qyburn?

  • Hugh MacIntyre

    Interesting theory but I have an objection and a counter theory that I think works better. [some spoilers but not really]

    Objection: Magic is part of the natural order

    You seem to be making the distinction between science and magic, but if magic is real then that means it is part of the natural order and presumably can be studied using the scientific method. We know that magic has limitations because of the chapter from Melisandre’s pov and we can presume that magic can be used in some predictable ways otherwise it would make a poor tool. I would also point out that the Maesters actually have a discipline dedicated to studying magic (although it is considered an oddity at the time of SoIF, which could just be because magic is less useful and thus less interesting by that time).

    This is important because it means that advancement in magic should be considered advancements in technology (in the economic sense). If the best minds are studying magic rather than other disciplines that could just be because the marginal benefit of magic is higher. It’s possible that magical advancements are distinct in that there is no potential for the wider population to benefit from it, but I doubt it (think of the civil engineering applications for valaryian steal). A sufficiently magically advanced civilization could very well be the equivalent to an industrial civilization.

    Consider that civilizations where magic was widespread were clearly more advanced. Valryia is one example. Another would be Westoros itself. The ancestors of the Starks thousands of years ago were able to construct the Wall and Winterfell (also possibly Storm’s End), but there is no indication that the modern day Westoros would be capable of similar engineering feats.

    Alternative: Os’ institutions are extractive (drawing inspiration from Why Nations Fail)

    I won’t fully develop this idea here but I’ll throw it out there. My basic premise is that the institutions required to launch an industrial society are pretty rare. In our own world it initially took off mostly in one corner of a small continent, so why should we assume that it would be any easier in Os? Hell, maybe somewhere in a distant continent they have reached 16th century European technological levels and are (unknowingly) preparing to colonize the barbaric people of Westoros.

    The civilizations that we do know about make use of two economic models: slave and feudal. The incentives for investment by the general population are pretty abysmal under both systems, thus stagnation. Braavos is the one exception, but that is a relatively new polity that has only recently come out of hiding. Maybe in the next hundred years or so conditions would be right in Braavos for leaps in technological advancement.

    The civilizations that we do know about make use of two economic models: slave and feudal. The incentives for investment by the general population are pretty abysmal under both systems, thus stagnation. Braavos is the one exception, but that is a relatively new polity that has only recently come out of hiding. Maybe in the next hundred years or so conditions would be right in Braavos for leaps in technological advancement.

    • Kevin Vallier

      The problem is that magic is not part of the natural order in the sense that its behavior is regular and predictable. That’s why the maesters hate it so much, and that’s why it is a barrier to progress.

      • Hugh MacIntyre

        Not sure I buy into the claim that magic isn’t “regular and predictable.” One problem is that most of the characters and we the readers know very little about GRR’s magic and how it works, and so it may appear random only because of our ignorance (hopefully Winds of Winter would clear some of this up). But we can gather that magic has at least some level of predictability because we know that people use it as a tool. If you can’t rely on a tool to act predictably to at least some degree then it is pretty useless.

        • Kevin Vallier

          Well, there are plenty of passages about magic’s unreliability and the costs that it brings, these costs often being hard to predict and awful. Consider the costs and errors associated with just about everything Melisandre does. But yes, it may only appear random. There could be impersonal laws governing it. Whatever may be the case, though, the laws of magic do not seem susceptible to the same dramatic regularities of other “natural” powers in Os.

          • Damien S.

            Early steam engines had a good chance of blowing up and killing you; it’s not like magic is uniquely dangerous. But it’s obviously been predictably useful to talented practitioners. Valyrian steel, roads, and candles; warging; fire magic; shadow magic; face-shifting… We’re also told the overall level of magic has ebbed, and is returning, kind of like windmills being less useful if you have erratic and weak winds.

    • Aaron Michelson

      I really like your point that magic should be considered as part of the natural world. Indeed, the supernatural cannot exist because if it did it would be – by definition – natural.

  • Ethan Pooley

    I was struck by the corollary between magic, as you describe it, and government:

    Government gives many powerful minded people shortcuts around genuine problems… So the incentive to engage in boring, rote, micro-level social solutions will have less of an expected payoff compared to other forms of activity, like political power-seeking.”

  • It’s probably also worth pointing out that focusing on Westeros gets things a little out of order. One thing that GRRM has done, rather subtlely, is put the main focus of his narrative on the most barbaric place. Westeros has been conquered by Essos multiple times – we know about the First Men, the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the Valyrians/Targaryens at the minimum. It is in a constant state of flux because it is basically a backward place.

    And, as you somewhat note, the Free Cities appear to be far closer to their big break than Westeros. Braavos, in particular, has rejected slavery in favor of commercialism, and it appears to be almost explicitly modeled after Renaissance Italy. Volantis has somewhat mature political parties and is on the verge of a slave revolt that will likely vault it forward in terms of development. Qarth also appears relatively advanced.

    I think your theory does hold, though, in the sense that Essos needed to get out from under the brutal, magic-supported slavocracy of Valyria before they could get going. Perhaps Westeros, which has somewhat recently escaped from the last of the Targaryens, will follow soon. Although Westeros appears likely to see at least a couple more conquests before even this story is finished.

    • Kevin Vallier

      I largely agree with your points, though the Essos invasions are spaced out by several millenia, though the invasions are gradual and lead to lots of conflicts. This just leads to the question of whether constant military conflict hurts or harms technological and economic progress. I’m not sure what I think either way.

    • Damien S.

      Slavocracy isn’t just Valyrian; the older Ghiscari culture is at least as dependent on it, and more brutal (cf. the Unsullied.)

  • Ryan M

    Hi Kevin,

    Fun post. I think you’re making more of the 8,000 year history than is useful for social science – I don’t think that the written record goes back that far, though there are histories of the days of the First Men. I always read that as mythology more than history. As I understood it, GRRM is basically remaking the War of the Roses with dragons and White Walkers. So there’s not much extra explanation needed for their stagnation beyond the fact that no one’s come up with mechanization yet. Old Valaryia is a stand-in for Rome, which was
    (in some respects) more technologically advanced than dark age Europe for quite a while.

    That said, at the beginning of the series, magic barely has a role. It’s described pretty much as capable of parlor tricks until the dragons come back. So we’d had more than a century of magic-free living without substantial progress. Magic clearly can also be reliably wielded. Wildfire can be reliably manufactured, and Valaryian steel used to be able to be produced without trouble. Valaryia was built on the back of bloodmagic, clearly reliable enough to domesticate and control dragons, and build large structures. The Children of the Forest seem to be able to reliably summon magic, enabling Bran the Builder to construct the Wall, and (likely) Storm’s End, though like anything, magic seems to have its limits (the children could break the land bridge between Essos and Westeros, but not sever the North from Westeros). The Rhoynar also seemed to be able to wield water magic reasonably reliably as a tool of war at the very least, and it seemed to give them serious agricultural benefits.

    The magic that’s depicted as more unreliable is R’hollor’s magic, but it’s unclear whether the magic is unreliable, or the practitioners don’t know enough about it yet. Plenty of our technologies could be described that way in their infancy. Ask all the kids who lost their hands to industrial looms how reliable they were. Intel’s failure rate on modern microchip fabrication is pretty high, because it bumps up against quantum effects, like electron tunneling.

    Your other big point is monotheism would be good for Westeros. At least in the south, they already have it. The Seven are seven facets of the same god (this is explicitly modeled after the Trinity). Smallfolk might treat them as seven distinct gods, but it’s just one god. (Catholics pray to saints too.) In Essos, R’hollor looks a whole lot like one god. There’s The Great Other, but Christianity has Satan. So it’s not at all clear to me that monotheism would do much work, given that the bulk of the population of Westeros is monotheistic. People might swear to the Old Gods and the New, but that is easy to read as mostly a nod to tolerance, not a claim about lots of competing real gods whose endorsement you’re seeking out. (It also seems to be a fact that the Old Gods really have a causal force in Westeros, at least given Bran’s storyline, and R’hollor sure looks like he has real casual power. It’s less clear if the Seven have ever done anything. So insofar as Westerosi people want to accurately track the world, believing in the Old Gods and R’hollor seems like an appropriate move.)

    Finally, about Maesters: they look a lot like monks with a political mandate to serve Houses. Monks were great for preserving knowledge, and advancing it slowly, but real gains came when advances started happening outside of the monastic world. The stagnation of Westeros is the same as the stagnation of Europe before the renaissance and the industrial revolution – it doesn’t require special explanation.

    • Kevin Vallier

      Good thoughts, all. A few replies.

      (1) The further back you go in Os-history, the more mythology you have. The Dawn Age certainly seems mythic, though most of the myths we know of seem to have a great deal of truth in them. Recorded history doesn’t go back as far, but it goes back at least as far as the Long Night and the formation of the Night’s Watch (8000 years), if the records of the Night’s Watch are to be believed. I’ve been paying some attention to the way in which information about the Others, the line of Lord Commanders and such is passed down. My impression from Sam’s review of the books at Castle Black is that the oldest documents decay, but make reference to early documents that are unavailable (Marwyn has a similar reference). There is still the expectation that people were keeping records, speculation, and the like in print. So maesters refer to texts, that themselves refer to texts, and on back. That’s why I’m thinking recorded history goes back much further than in our world. (Further, I’d be surprised if the empires of Old Ghis and Valyria didn’t have something like recorded history as well. Old Ghis in particular is super old, though Old Ghis smacks of the Babylonians.)

      (2) Yes, you have about a century without any real, significant magic (save for maybe in Asshai) and yes, you see no progress, but I’m fine with that being a mere matter of chance and requiring no special explanation. A century of no progress doesn’t seem to me as remarkable as millenia without anything discernible.

      (3) You’re right that magic can be used in predictable ways that I could have taken more account of, especially the forging of Valyrian steel. Plus, the Children seemed to be able to use magic regularly in a way that men could not. There are also references to the Valyrians building their empire on bloodmagic more broadly, and not just metalworking and dragoncraft. So those are points well taken.

      The question is whether those specific uses of magic are subject to law-like explanations that make scientific reasoning possible, or whether you just have raw correlations that do not bear further examination or manipulation in the form of experiment to discern a specific law-like explanation or pattern. My sense from the magic in the books is that inquiry into magic is not expected to yield anything sensibly impersonal and law-like, unlike examination of other matters, like the seasons or the stars (though even those are less predictable than our own world). Magic seems to have an almost personal aspect, built on social factors like character, social rank, belief systems and the like.

      The interesting question is what the Valyrians were able to do, how they used magic regularly to do things other than dragoncraft (which I don’t think involves spells) and metalworking. Perhaps they used magic regularly enough to generate law-like explanations. Perhaps we’ll know more when A World of Ice and Fire comes out in a few months.

      But my broader point is that the magic uses we see in the book suggest that magic is inherently unpredictable and costly in ways that are hard to predict in advance. So experimenting with magic seems to be different than experimenting with plants, finches, metals, and telescopes. It’s hard to see how the magic we observe would be susceptible to law-like explanations. They seem more associated with psychological and theological explanation, though that may just be a feature of the mental representations of magic we see through the character POVs.

      (3) When I think of the Seven, I’m thinking of medieval Catholicism, not the less “superstitious” forms of Catholicism and Protestantism that were present among intellectuals in the early modern period. People expect the Smith, the Maid, the Crone, etc. to intercede for them, control winds, aid pregnancy, heal wounds, etc. And that sort of monotheism is less conducive to developing the expectation that real-world phenomena are subject to law-like explanation. I think that was true in medieval folk Catholicism and that it is true of the Faith of the Seven. Now, perhaps the maesters and septons will help to construct a less “superstitious” form of the faith that will allow people to expect more law-like regularities in the future, but it hasn’t happened yet, and I suspect that plays a role in forestalling scientific culture. The Faith of the Seven needs a Thomas Aquinas and an Erasmus. So it’s not theism+complicated theology that is science-conducive, but the more austere forms of theism common among many intellectual elites in centuries past.

      Now, you could easily be right that perhaps the people of Os just haven’t stumbled onto successful law-like explanations yet for purely path-dependent reasons. But given the fact that Os civilization is much older than Earth civilization, it seems to call out for special explanation to me. That is, we need a special explanation for why it has taken Os-civilization so much longer to stumble upon many modern forms of social and economic progress.

      And plus, it’s more fun to look for special explanations!

      • Ryan M

        All reasonable points.

        I do think that you’re overly discounting the serious costs of unpredictable seasons. You offer a capital accumulation story, which might tell us why we have less wealth in Westeros, but that seems insufficient. The Great Houses in general have plenty of capital, even if the smallfolk don’t. The problem is that this capital is not being converted into innovation. Unpredictable seasons (possibly the result of being in a weird binary star system) make it hard to start generating law-like regularities. On Earth, astronomy was useful because it let us predict seasons and alluvial flooding, and other immediately-useful things. One can easily spin a story for how this easy win prompted us to look for other such easy wins. Note that the Maesters cannot do even this. They have a council agree and announce that Autumn has arrived, but they can’t produce calendars or almanacs. Not only is that too bad from a rational planning standpoint, it’s a lost pathway to the idea that the natural world follows laws that we can empirically discover. The Maesters’ expertise is primarily in mastery of what’s been discovered. Our brief glimpses of Oldtown suggest that Maesters are guardians of (sanctioned) knowledge, not producers of it.

        In truth, I think it’s a lot more useful to think of magic as a technology. Bloodmagic helped Valaryia build out its road systems, watermagic let Rhoynar build out canals and agriculture, and the Children have done pretty dramatic stuff. Brandon the Builder pulled off incredible technological feats (try building a wall of any material that size with any modern technology). You might want to argue that bloodmagic, specifically as it relates to dragon-binding and the like, was such an overwhelmingly powerful wartime technology that there wasn’t the impetus for further advancement. But that’s not because it was unreliable, it was because it was a hugely reliable war technology that provided overwhelming force. Remember, dragons not only give you dragons and dragonriders, which basically made castles obsolete, but they are also catalysts for wildfire, which alone would be a dominant wartime technology, and they are somehow connected to producing ultra-advanced steel. Again, any one of those would let you be the dominant power. All three, and there’s no reason to have to innovate on top. You can just extract whatever resources you want from people without dragons. There’s the argument that Europe advanced in part because it was lots of small countries who were constantly fighting, and this gave them the reason to invest in technological innovation. China, on the other hand, was large and did not regularly face invasion the way that, say, France did, and didn’t have the motivation to innovate. You could argue that once the Seven Kingdoms are really one kingdom, you see the same effects. Look how fast the kingdom fell apart post-dragons-and-wildfire, and how quickly people declared their own kingdoms.
        So on this account, magic retards development not because it makes people not care about law-like regularity, but it is such a ridiculously powerful technology you don’t need to invest in new technologies if you’re the one that wields it. The Free Cities might be evidence of this, as they are often warring with each other, no one is dominant, and they’re all pretty wealthy, but it appears that the “technology” they’ve invested in has been slavery.

        • Kevin Vallier

          I love the idea of magic as a technology. In my next post, I’m going to talk about what sort of monarchy Westeros is, and one reason it’s not a pure feudal monarchy is precisely because the pacts made between Aegon and all the seven kingdoms but Dorne were created under conditions of total military superiority. So the monarchy isn’t an absolute monarchy, but until the Dance with the Dragons, challenging it was impossible, so it could get away with a lot. But I had not thought to communicate military superiority into a lack of innovation. Very good call.

        • Irri

          Planetos not in binary star system. Was in binary moon system, but many ages ago, one moon hatch a thousand dragons. It is known.

        • Damien S.

          “China, on the other hand, was large and did not regularly face invasion
          the way that, say, France did, and didn’t have the motivation to

          Except China innovated plenty, and was the most advanced country (or set of warring countries) for much of history. Also, uh, China got invaded a *lot* by steppe peoples. Mongols, Manchus, Khitans, others… there’s that whole Great Wall thing. We could turn this around: China was invaded more recently and more brutally than Western Europe, which didn’t face anything other than internal squabbling after the Viking raids died down.

      • Damien S.

        “Os just haven’t stumbled onto successful law-like explanations”

        Alternately: the law-like explanations you’re imagining don’t exist. The world actually is ruled by the whims or interplay of occult entities. Gunpowder doesn’t work or have an equivalent.

        Alternately: magic *is* the law-like explanations, or as good as you’ll get. You don’t make advanced steel, you make Valyrian steel. You don’t make gunpowder or Greek fire, you make wildfire with alchemical magic.

        They could still be more advanced and wealthier in ways not vulnerable to different laws of chemistry and physics: printing press, pony express postal service, better roads even without Valyrian magic, urban sewers… but I’m not sure there’s anything really to explain, given the diversity of real world development.

  • TheBrett

    I’ll third the point that the dates and time lengths given are unreliable. The fourth and fifth books even have some book-ish characters point that out, and if you roughly “half” the time periods given in the books they make a lot more sense. For example, “2000 years between when the Andals show up and the Present Day in Westeros” fits very well – it’s close to the length in time between the beginnings of the real-life Iron-Age and the High Middle Ages.

    Magic also seems to explicitly strengthen the power of elites in the books’ universe. The Valyrian nobility is explicitly described as being “strong in magic” with regards to their ability to put down the many, many revolts that ensued in their empire.

  • cassander

    The absence of gunpowder is a more compelling answer. Gunpowder was discovered largely by accident, so it’s quite plausible that Westeros simply hasn’t happened on it. Gunpowder warfare dramatically raised the capital intensity of warfare by making obsolete hundreds of years’ accumulation of fortifications and making fighting more expensive (guns and powder cost more than spears and arrows). It also encouraged an experimental mindset in areas like metallurgy and chemistry.

    • Damien S.

      Or chemistry is different and there is no gunpowder to discover.

  • Alsadius

    This is your idea of avoiding spoilers? Seriously? You have stuff from the epilogue of book 5 in there, unmarked. I don’t care personally, since I’ve read it all, but you’re really bad at spoiler alerts.

    Also, I think you miss the point when you divide it into “magic” and “science”. In a world where magic actually exists, they’re the same thing. You do X, you get Y. It’s just that in reality, Y is moving pictures or sound recording, and in a fantasy novel, Y is seeing the future or throwing fireballs. But cause and effect still exist, and are still amenable to rational inquiry.

    • adrianratnapala

      I can’t say I noticed the spoilers, so maybe the ones you found were real howlers. Generally though, I find people are oversensitive, they treat any leakage of information, as a “spoiler”, when it is more often a “whetter”.

  • Damien S.

    Other points:
    If magic has declined, then past civilizations would have advanced for thousands of years in a field no longer useful. Like building a civilization around fossil fuels which then run out without replacement. There would have been progress, but then regression based on a missing input.

    The Doom of Valyria probably wiped out tons of expertise and libraries in magic and non-magical industries alike. “Realistically” a major volcano or meteor strike would have caused bad harvest and possible famine elsewhere, too. The Dothraki arose after the Doom and probably destroyed a bunch of cities before people learned how to buy them off.

    War is good for weapons development if you’re the US or UK in WWII and have a solid research-oriented industry safely isolated from the overseas front. More intimate warfare can mean invaders killing your experts, burning your libraries, and destroying the infrastructure you use to maintain productive populations. Cf. the Spanish burning almost all the Mayan books, the Romans wiping out the Druids, the Mongols destroying Mideast irrigation systems, various fights in Alexandria destroying the Library there bit by bit. Westeros’s long-term state of intermittent warfare could just as well be a major drag on development.

    I don’t think we actually know how static things have been. They have articulated plate, telescopes, a variety of ships, good architecture (but crap roads in Westeros), glassworking, wind- and water-mills, and possibly better medicine than pre-1900 Earth. How long have they had these things? I don’t think the books go into tech history.

  • Valar

    Now, if magic in Westeros obeyed rational laws, and could be controlled more easily, it could be used just like any other technology to advance the economic prosperity of Westeros. But it appears that magic is more random and chaotic, and not even its best users understand how it works.

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